U.S. State Department Relaxes Passport Rules for Transgender People

by Cara on June 10, 2010

in bigotry, discrimination, gender, human rights, LGBTQ, trans, transphobia and trans misogyny

Two U.S. passports atop airline tickets in a light blue packet.Some good news has just come out for many U.S. trans* folks: the U.S. State Department has decided that surgery is no longer a requirement for trans* individuals to change their gender markers on their passports.

“Sexual reassignment surgery is no longer a prerequisite for passport issuance,” it said in a statement.

From June 10, “when a passport applicant presents a certification from an attending medical physician that the applicant has undergone appropriate clinical treatment for gender transition, the passport will reflect the new gender,” the statement said.

The new policy and procedures are based on standards and recommendations of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), recognized by the American Medical Association as the authority in this field, the department said.

“As with all passport applicants, passport issuing officers at embassies and consulates abroad and domestic passport agencies and centers will only ask appropriate questions to obtain information necessary to determine citizenship and identity.”

The State Department said the new rules mean “it is also possible to obtain a limited-validity passport if the physician’s statement shows the applicant is in the process of gender transition. No additional medical records are required.”

This is great news for several reasons. First of all, it can be incredibly emotionally distressing and even traumatic to be forced to carry and present identification that does not actually match your identity — especially when you face a culture that is regularly and hugely hostile to the very idea of your identity, already.

That alone — basic humanity and decency — should, of course, be more than enough reason for such a change to go into effect. But in addition to the emotional damage of not being able to have your passport accurately reflect your gender, the old rules also presented a very real risk of harassment and physical harm. Officials who see a passport where a gender does not match that of the person standing in front of them may accuse the person — a victim of cissexist policy — of terrorism or fraud and detain or threaten to detain hir. They may taunt the person with transphobic slurs, deny hir gender identity, and attempt to reduce hir as a person. If detained, the trans* person will face real physical danger both from officials and from fellow detainees, especially if placed in detention with those of a different gender (i.e. a trans woman detained with cis men). And as we’re talking about passports, it’s important to note that trans* people put in this position not only face these risks from U.S. officials, but also from officials in other countries, which may have different and potentially even more transphobic laws.

The standards were also incredibly cissupremacist and objectifying towards trans* people, by reducing one’s gender identity to the genitalia between one’s legs. Only in a cissupremacist world is one required to have a certain, “expected” set of genitalia to have hir gender identity rightfully accepted. Only in a cissupremacist world does penis = man and vagina = woman. Only in a cissupremacist world must cis standards of sex and gender be satisfied — no matter how many years it takes and how little an individual person might actually desire to meet those standards — before one will be treated as fully human.

Additionally, any standards requiring surgery for trans* people are outrageously classist. Surgery costs money — lots and lots of money. Many trans* folks who need or otherwise desire surgery as a part of their transitions cannot afford it, or must save for many, many years in order to be able to do so. Many trans* people don’t have regular access to health care. Even for those who do, health insurance plans don’t usually cover medical treatment specifically related to transition. As a result, any requirement that a trans* individual must undergo surgery places wealthy and middle-class trans* folks in a position of privilege over poor trans* people with regards to having their gender identities accepted. That cis folks make rules regarding trans* lives period is abhorrent, but even more so when such concerns are almost universally not taken into account.

Of course, with the new rules, concerns regarding cissupremacy and classism are not wholly alleviated. As Helen G points out at Questioning Transphobia, what exactly constitutes “appropriate” medical treatment is currently unclear, as is what constitutes “appropriate questioning,” but definitions more likely reflect cissupremacist notions of gender identity than not. And while it’s positive that medical records are apparently not actually required, as referenced above, trans* people don’t all have access to the health care services that would grant them the required certificate. Further, not all want to undergo medical treatment, let alone any specific medical treatment. Yet, the new rules still require the corroboration of a (undoubtedly presumed to be cis) health care provider.

Additionally, it’s important to note that while this is excellent news to a whole lot of trans* folks, others are still left out of reform. After all, the new rules don’t open up more gender indicators beyond male and female. Thus, the identities of people with a huge range of different genders — including some intersex individuals, as well as non-binary identifying trans* people — are still forced to use gender indicators that do not accurately reflect their identities, and are pushed into an essentialist box that does not fit them.

But with these vital caveats in mind, the change in policy is absolutely a step forward, and will undoubtedly make many trans* people safer when traveling and interacting with authorities. It also reflects a far too slowly but still surely growing respect and regard for the identities of trans* folks by the U.S. government. There’s an incredibly long way to go towards eradicating cissexism in governmental policy and making sure that trans* people are even remotely safe in the U.S., but this is one more very tiny move in the right direction.

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{ 7 comments }

1 The Untoward Lady June 11, 2010 at 5:54 pm

As I pointed out on my blog, a United States passport or passport card is irrefutable evidence of identification anywhere in the world. This means that those of us who are able to procure the support of a sympathetic physician will be able to obtain a gender-affirming form of primary identification no matter what state or territory the person might live in.

What I also pointed out was that this policy places, not only an unfair onus on the poor, but an unfair onus on disabled people as we either are not able to travel to a friendly doctor or, in the case of mental disability, are not deemed by the medical community as competent to make our own choices regarding our own identity.

2 Cara June 11, 2010 at 7:08 pm

All excellent additional points — thank you so much for sharing them here.

3 The Untoward Lady June 11, 2010 at 11:09 pm

Thanks!

Oh, I should also point out that this new policy change also affects Consular Reports of Births Abroad of Citizens of the United States of America. Those are basically birth certificates for non-naturalized US citizens who were born oversees.

4 Marla Bendini June 13, 2010 at 7:00 am

Hi, I’m a transgender woman from Singapore. Congratulations on the new policy and I hope this would encourage other countries including Singapore to revise their policies.

Please read about my experience at the US immigrations as a pre-operative transgender woman, as well as my incident with the authorities back home regarding my passport photo:
http://patpot.net/marlabendini/?p=494

5 scwizard June 13, 2010 at 12:31 pm

I’m not too familiar with how US passports handle gender. Is it still a binary option? Either or?

6 The Untoward Lady June 13, 2010 at 4:24 pm

It’s a binary, either/or option and it’s not a “check a box” deal either. They’d look up your skirt if they could get away with it.

7 Maka June 14, 2010 at 10:59 pm

i definitely recognize the problems discussed here, and am glad we’re talking about them. i know i won’t stop talking about them . still, i’m glad for this step. (for perspective, i’m speaking as a cisgendered queer woman whose partner is a trans man who takes T worries often that today might be the day that one of my partner’s coworkers will realize He is female-bodied, or that He might get arrested and end up in jail, or end up in some other situation where He is danger for being who He is.)

we are so excited about what this will mean for us. because of this, my partner will be able to get a passport identifying Him as male, which He can use to then get His driver’s license corrected, which we can then use to get a marriage license. we’ve sort of struggled over whether or not to get legally married, but we’ve decided to do it after all. i recognize the privilege i’m expressing – for one thing, He has an endocrinologist, which we pay for out of pocket, not easy on unemployment, but doable, at less than $1.50/day for doctor’s bills and His T prescription. for another thing, while we can get legally married now, a lot of our queer friends can’t.

i’m glad for the dialogues this opens up within the trans community, within the queer community, and within the straight community!

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